Remembering the Colorado Silver Bullets

Manager Phil Niekro of the Colorado Silver Bullets looks on during a game.
Manager Phil Niekro of the Colorado Silver Bullets looks on during a game.
Otto Greule Jr, Getty Images

Sixteen-year-old knuckleballer Eri Yoshida made news earlier this week when she was selected in the Kansai Independent Baseball League draft. Remember the name, because you might hear it again in a few years when the Red Sox sign Yoshida to replace her idol, Tim Wakefield. We're kidding (we think).

Of course women playing baseball against men is nothing new. In fact, it was only 11 years ago that the all-female Colorado Silver Bullets were barnstorming across the country, challenging men's pro, semi-pro, and amateur teams from coast to coast. Here's a look back at the history of the team.

The Beginning: The man behind the creation of the Silver Bullets was Bob Hope, the Atlanta Braves' former vice president of promotions (not the late actor and comedian). Hope had developed a reputation for his unique ideas while with the Braves. On "Headlock and Wedlock Night," wedding ceremonies at home plate were followed by a professional wrestling exhibition. During another one of Hope's promotions, an Atlanta disc jockey nearly suffocated after diving headfirst into the world's largest ice cream sundae.

Still, Hope garnered the financial backing of the Coors Brewing Co. in 1993, and under the ownership of Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Silver Bullets became the first women's team to be recognized by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Hope tabbed former Braves pitcher and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro as manager and Shereen Samonds, the only female general manager in Double-A baseball at the time, as the team's top front office executive. Niekro would manage the team for its first three seasons.

The Tryouts: In a process reminiscent of the women-only league portrayed in the movie A League of Their Own, 1,300 women attended tryouts at 11 different locations across the country in the spring of 1994. Forty-eight were invited to the team's training camp in Orlando, Fla., before the team roster was whittled to 24. Legal assistants, nurses, teachers, waitresses, college students, and a Sports Illustrated writer were among those who tried out in hopes of being a part of history. And then there was Geri Fritz. After she was let go in one of the final rounds of cuts, it was revealed that Fritz was born a man. Fritz formerly went by Gerald and played college and professional baseball, but claimed to be legally female. The $20,000 that players earned for making the team could've helped the unemployed Fritz pay for the sex-change operation she wanted.

The First Season: To say the Silver Bullets struggled in their first season would be like saying Coors Light isn't the world's greatest beer. Colorado compiled a 6-38 record in 1994 and was outscored 57-1 in its first six games. The brutal start prompted the team to cancel its remaining scheduled games with Northern League teams and to schedule semi-pro and amateur teams instead. As the season wore on, it became increasingly clear that while the Silver Bullets could field and, to a lesser extent, pitch on par with some of their male counterparts, hitting was another story. Stacy Sunny led the team in nearly every offensive category, including runs (11), RBI (11), hits (23), and average (.200). As a team, the Silver Bullets averaged 1.9 runs per game and hit .154.

The Reaction: The Silver Bullets were a big draw at the gates during their first season. While they normally played in smaller minor league ballparks, they attracted crowds of more than 30,000 fans for games in Denver and San Diego. Silver Bullets souvenirs were hot items and the team generated a media buzz wherever it went. Not everyone was enamored with the idea, however. New York Times sports columnist Barbara Walder wrote: "This sad, slightly embarrassing stunt is just another way women have dropped the ball in their sporting quests over the last 20 years. Not even the most-reflexive feminists can work up much excitement for this enterprise. For instead of being bravely ahead of its time, the Bullets are badly behind, resorting to an attention-getter "“ sports women versus men "“ that like Bill Veeck's baseball-playing midget, can only work once."

The Improvement: The team improved its win total from six to 11 to 18 over the first three seasons, but the novelty of the idea slowly started to wear off. Average attendance dipped from approximately 8,000 in 1994 to 3,500 in 1995 as the team continued to struggle to compete and score runs. After starting the 1996 season 4-19, the Silver Bullets switched to aluminum bats and won 14 of their final 30 games. The team traveled to Taiwan for six exhibition games against men's teams from the Taiwan Major League in the offseason, but were outscored 69-18 and lost all six games. Searching for ways to cut costs, the Silver Bullets established a home base in Albany, Georgia, where they played close to half of their games in 1997.

The Brawl: On June 11, 1997, Kim Braatz-Voisard stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth and the Silver Bullets trailing an 18-and-under state champion team from Georgia by four runs. One pitch after she told the opposing team's heckling teenage catcher to shut up and play ball, she was drilled in the back with a fastball. The pitcher then laughed at Braatz-Voisard, who charged the mound and set off a bench-clearing brawl.

"I don't blame her," first-year Silver Bullets manager Bruce Crabbe told reporters afterward. "If Albert Belle gets hit by a pitcher who laughs at him, you think he might charge the mound?" The opposing team's manager said his pitcher did not intentionally throw at Braatz-Voisard, who one year earlier hit Colorado's first out-of-the-park home run. Attendance received a boost following the brawl, including a crowd of 10,000 for a game in Alaska. "It's almost a validating thing," Hope said. "This is a baseball team. If you're willing to brawl, you care about what you're doing."

The End: The Silver Bullets finished the 1997 season with their first winning record (23-22), but disbanded after losing Coors as their sponsor. A Coors spokesperson said the decision had nothing to do with the team's play, but Hope was disappointed nonetheless. "We don't want to sound ungrateful to Coors for giving us this opportunity, but it brings into question whether they consider this a corporate responsibility program, or just a novelty act," Hope told a reporter. "The idea apparently lost its freshness." The idea, apparently, lacked a Frost Brew Liner.

Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?

Lonnie Major, ALLSPORT
Lonnie Major, ALLSPORT

Before anyone brings home the hardware, let's answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman's Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn't really Heisman's Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer—he consistently received rotten reviews—and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere—in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago's Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

Possibly, but Heisman didn't have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists—Vinny Testaverde won that year—and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time."

What's a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

Steve Spurrier playing quarterback in 1966, the year he won the Heisman Trophy.
Steve Spurrier playing quarterback for the University of Florida in 1966, the year he won the Heisman Trophy.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol' Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida's student government thought Spurrier's generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he'd get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World's Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman's Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn't show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren't totally clear—some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion—the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

Attention Football Fans: The Buffalo Bills Are Paying People $12 an Hour to Clear the Stadium of Snow

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are asking fans to prove just how dedicated they are following a snowstorm in western New York this week. As Buffalo News reports, New Era Field is hiring snow shovelers to clear out the stands and the field in time for Sunday's game—and it's offering free tickets as an incentive.

This Friday, workers will be paid $12 an hour to remove snow from the stadium—a $1 pay increase from last season. Shovelers who complete at least a four-hour shift will receive a free ticket to the game against the New York Jets on Sunday, December 9. They're encouraged to bring their own shovel, but tools will be provided to whomever shows up without one.

According to Weather.com, Buffalo has the worst weather of any NFL city, with intense cold, wind, and snowfall throughout the season. In November 2014, a storm buried Buffalo under nearly 7 feet of snow, with 220,000 tons of it ending up in New Era Field. Locals were also called upon to lend a hand and a shovel that time around, but as no one could leave their homes, the game had to be relocated. The Bills ended up beating the Jets 38-3 in the Detroit Lions’s indoor arena.

With a few home games still scheduled for this season, it's possible that local snow shovel owners may be asked to help out again if they miss this opportunity.

[h/t Buffalo News]

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